Benjamin Franklin and “our Seamen who were Prisoners in England”

Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 31: 497.Earlier this week, I found myself sitting at my desk at the Franklin Papers faced with photostat copies of an “Alphabetical List of Escaped Prisoners” and a huge pile of promissory notes printed in triplicate by Franklin himself on the press he kept at his home in Passy, a suburb outside Paris. While I was going through them, I could not help but think back to the recent events surrounding the return of U.S. Army Sergeant, Bowe Bergdahl, the last remaining prisoner of the nation’s longest continuous period of war since the American Revolution. Politics aside, the Bergdahl affair speaks to the importance placed on coming to the aid of Americans detained in wartime. And what I had before me at my desk spoke to the same during the War for Independence. These men—largely privateersmen who had been captured on the high seas by the British and transported to English prisons—were among the very first Americans imprisoned on foreign soil during wartime and these documents reveal an often untold story about how the United States government and Benjamin Franklin dealt with this new problem.

Not long after Benjamin Franklin arrived in France as a commissioner from the Continental Congress, he began receiving reports about American seamen who had been captured on the high seas and imprisoned in England.[2] Throughout the year, more reports filed in. In March of 1777, Patience Wright, an American sculptor and spy living in England, wrote to Franklin, “There is 23 more unhapy Prisoner at Portsmout … they wish to Know what to hope from you. For gods Sake have Compasion on those Stranger whos Property is all taken from them and they in Iorns No one to Comfort them, and it is not in the powe of the People to help them without You.[3] (NB: All quotes and footnotes are linked directly to the letters in which they are to be found at Founders Online.) Just a few months later, the numbers of American prisoners had grown significantly. In June, a Massachusetts doctor educated at Cambridge, Josiah Smith, informed Franklin that he had been captured upon his return to the United States and imprisoned at Plymouth, where there were being held “200 of my countrymen” and “as many more at Portsmouth.” Smith told the prisoners he was going to France and “they beged of me to represent their situation to your Honour.”[4]

Luther S. Livingston, <i>Franklin and His Press at Passy: An Account of the Books, Pamphlets, and Leaflets Printed There, Including the Long-Lost Bagatelles</i> (New York: Grolier Club, 1914), 80-83

With desperately detailed letters arriving from prisoners or escapees on the run seeking his assistance, Franklin became aware of the number of Americans being held in British jails and their deplorable conditions.[5] He sought to negotiate large-scale prisoner exchanges with Britain’s Ambassador to France, Lord Stormont.[6] However, the negotiations were made public in England and his efforts were unsuccessful.[7] If he could not negotiate an exchange, neither could he turn a blind eye to the sufferings of these seamen.

With the hope of imminent exchange dim, American prisoners began attempting to escape from the British jails (or what was referred to as making “leg bail”). They escaped in all kinds of ways. Some scaled prison walls or escaped through privies. Some took advantage of the lax security in the prison hospitals to make their escape, while others stole the keys from guards or just outright bribed them. Still others donned disguises. But the most successful method (especially for group escapes) was tunneling.[8]

Unfortunately, the danger did not end on the other side of the prison wall. The first thing they would have to do is find the local sympathizer and get clothes. Then, they had to make their way to a major city, often London, dodging so-called “five-pound bounty hunters” all along the way. Once in London, they had to find an agent. In 1777 into 1778, Franklin decided to offer assistance to escaping prisoners by setting up a network of “agents” to assist them, effectively an “underground railroad” for escaped prisoners. Once they had found an agent, the escapee would receive money (either provided by Franklin or by the agents themselves) in exchange for a note allowing the agent to be recompensed by Franklin.

One of Franklin’s busiest London agents was Thomas Digges.[9] To show Franklin’s level of involvement in the process, he traded ninety-seven pieces of correspondence with Digges between September 1778 and December 1780 alone (and Digges was only one of many agents with whom he corresponded). The stream of escapees kept increasing, so much so that after little more than a year, Digges’s own financial situation was stretched. He wrote to Franklin, “I cannot describe to you the trouble I have with these people; and the expence is so heavy on me at times that even with my curtaild and œconimic mode of living I am put to extreem difficulties. It is not trifles that will do for men who come naked by dozens & half dozens, & it is harder still to turn ones back upon them.”[10] Indeed, Franklin’s funds were also being stretched. It seems that he put up his own money in the beginning but then shifted them to official expenses.[11]

Once escapees had secured assistance in England, their next move was to make their way to France. In the early years, they hitched rides on boats going across the Channel. However, as the war dragged on that became increasingly hard and some took to stealing small boats and taking their chances. But even if they got across the Channel, they were still in danger of being imprisoned by French authorities who often mistook Americans for Britons. Franklin interceded in a number of these types of cases. If one could avoid being arrested by the French, their next move was to make their way to Franklin’s home in Passy. Escapees began showing up at Franklin’s door before he had even developed his underground network and he had given them money out of his own pocket.

Luther S. Livingston, Franklin and His Press at Passy: An Account of the Books, Pamphlets, and Leaflets Printed There, Including the Long-Lost Bagatelles (New York: Grolier Club, 1914), 80-83.By 1780, he needed to standardize and account for the money he was distributing so he printed up promissory notes in triplicate on the press he kept at his home.[12] The bearer was required to repay the debt to the Continental Congress. Franklin’s secretary, Jean L’Air de Lamotte, kept an alphabetical list of each note issued, including the bearer, the date, and the sum. Each letter got its own page, with each page being ordered chronologically. There are approximately 250 entries in the list.

As time wore on, the money Congress (and Franklin) could afford to give the escapees decreased, especially since Franklin and Congress were also recompensing monies given to escapees who had fled to other places, e.g., Holland. A quick look at the list shows that the amount of money given to each escapee upon their arrival in Passy steadily decreased as the war dragged on. The list records remittances beginning in 1777. Early entries on the list show remittances in the denomination of louis d’ors (l.) but the later remittances are in the denomination of livres tournois (l. t.) which were worth 1/24 of a louis d’or.[13] Whereas some in 1777 had been given enough to get all the way back to the states, by 1780 or so, Franklin was only giving each escapee enough to get from Passy to a French port, from which they had to secure their own way back to America, usually by signing on to the ship of a merchant who had a standing agreement with Franklin. Franklin’s last promissory note was issued in May of 1785, just a few months before he set sail for home.

Franklin’s sympathy for these seamen and his experience of having them knocking on his door begging for help for years appears to have had an effect on him. In a 1782 letter to Robert R. Livingston, he wrote, “I have long suffer’d with those poor brave Men, who with so much Publick Virtue have endur’d 4 or 5 Years hard Imprisonment, rather than serve against their Country. I have done all I could afford towards making their Situation more comfortable; but their Numbers were so great that I could do but little for each.”[14] Years later at the Constitutional Convention, when James Madison proposed “entrusting the Right of Suffrage to Freeholders only,” Franklin replied,

I am afraid that by depositing the Right of Suffrage in the freeholders exclusively we shall injure the lower Class of freemen. This Class possess hardy Virtues and great Integrity. The revolutionary war is a glorious Testimony in favor of Plebeian Virtue-our military and naval men are sensible of this Truth. I myself know that our Seamen who were Prisoners in England refused all the allurements that were made use of, to draw them from their allegiance to their Country-threatened with ignominious Halters, they still refused. This was not the case with the English Seamen, who, on being made Prisoners entered into the American Service and pointed out where other Prisoners could be made-and this arose from a plain cause. The Americans were all free and equal to any of their fellow citizens-the English Seamen were not so.”[15]

The experience had certainly informed his opinions on the degree of suffrage the new nation should adopt. 

Unfortunately, the story of Franklin and the escaped prisoners is not one that has been regularly told, even by his own biographers. Indeed, none of the most popular biographies of Franklin—those by van Doren, Isaacson, Morgan, Wood, and Brands—devote more than a sentence or two to prisoners and none discuss the aid network he created and managed, failing to recognize its significance to either Franklin the Minister or Franklin the man.[16] But the amount of his correspondence and energies that went into managing the affairs of supplying aid to prisoners and escapees make clear that this was a significant part of his duty and life during his time as the Minister to France. And the quote from the Constitutional Convention also helps make clear that Franklin’s experiences with and memories of the imprisoned and escaped seamen he had assisted had a deep impact upon him. 


My thanks to Kate Ohno and Ellen Cohn at the Franklin Papers for their help while researching this piece, as well as all the previous editors who worked on the volumes used in preparing it.

[1] Even though these men were privateers, they were still considered as contributing to the war effort due to their disruption of British trade during the war. There is no shortage of work on American prisoners of war during the Revolution. For Americans held in Britain, see Sheldon S. Cohen, Yankee Sailors in British Gaols: Prisoners of War at Forton and Mill, 1777-1783 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1995). For Americans held by the British in the United States during the war, see Edwin G. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War (New York: Basic Books, 2008).

[2] Cohen, Yankee Sailors, 84. For some of the earliest pleas and accounts of prisoner detainment received by Franklin, see Elizabeth Wright to BF, February 13, 1777Papers of Benjamin Franklin (hereafter PBF), 40 vols., eds. Leonard W. Labaree, et. al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 23: 321-6; From C.W.K. and J.H., February 14, 1777PBF, 23: 332-4; The Secret Committee to the American Commissioners, 17 Feb 1777, 23: 338-9.

[3] Patience Wright to BF, [after March 7, 1777]PBF, 23: 447-50.

[4] Josiah Smith to BF, June 4, 1777PBF,  24: 117-8.

[5] Franklin did not only receive these kinds of letters from prisoners or escapees. He was constantly receiving a barrage of requests for favors from strangers. Often, the letters from prisoners gave accounts of their origins and detailed how they found themselves in their current predicament (some at great length). Reading them reminded me of a job I had in my early 20s reading viewer mail for NBC at Rockefeller Center. Along with the usual requests from teenagers (and, yes, some adults) seeking autographs from the cast of Saved By The Bell, NBC also received a lot of (very long) letters from inmates in which they recounted their entire life stories and how they had been framed or imprisoned unjustly. They wrote to NBC in the hopes that “Dateline” would investigate their case and help exonerate them. From the Marquis de Valory and Other Favor Seekers to BF, July 5, 1780PBF, 33: 31-9.

[6] Catherine M. Prelinger, “Benjamin Franklin and the American Prisoners of War in England during the American Revolution,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 32, no. 2 (1975): 282-4.

[7] London Chronicle, November 6, 1777.

[8] Cohen, Yankee Sailors107, 112.

[9] Digges wrote to Franklin of his reasons for offering his services to the captured Americans, “I am unavoidably prevented from giving my personal assistance to a cause I have extreemly at heart, but I am so situated in this Country as to have it often in my power to be servicable to those more actively and openly employd; If You can point out any mode wherein I can be useful, or will place confidence enough in me to transact or do anything for You here, I promise You Sir it shall be done with zeal punctuality secrecy and honor.” Thomas Digges to BF, September 18, 1778PBF, 27: 420-1.

[10] Thomas Digges to BF, November 10, 1779PBF, 31: 79-81. This may have contributed to the fact that Digges was later accused of misappropriating funds that were supposed to go aiding the escapees. Upon hearing news of this, Franklin was furious and responded to the news by writing, “I received your respected Favour of the 20th past, & am shock’d exceedingly at the Account you give me of Digges. He that robbs the Rich even of a single Guinea, is a Villain, but what is he who can break his sacred Trust by robbing a poor Man and a Prisoner of Eighteen Pence given charitably for his Relief, and repeat that Crime as often as there are Weeks in a Winter, and multiply it by robbing as many poor Men every Week as make up the Number of near 600.— We have no Name in our Language for such atrocious Wickedness.—If such a Fellow is not damn’d, ’tis not worth while to keep a Devil.” BF to William Hodgson, April 1, 1781PBF, 34: 507-8.

[11] It is hard to know for sure since Franklin (and his secretaries) had not done a very good job until then of keeping his private and official accounts separate. Prelinger, “Benjamin Franklin and the American Prisoners,” 292.

[12] The original notes are all held at the American Philosophical Society and phototstats are held at the Papers of Benjamin Franklin. See “Editorial Note on Promissory Notes, 1780,” PBF, 34: 6-7; “Editorial Note on Promissory Notes, 1781,” PBF, 36: 6-8; “Editorial Note on Promissory Notes, 1782,” PBF, 37: 4-5; “Editorial Note on Promissory Notes, 1782,” PBF, 38: 5;   “Editorial Note on Promissory Notes, 1783,” PBF, 39: 5. On the press and the printing of the blank notes, see Ellen R. Cohn, ‘‘The Printer at Passy,’’ in Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World, ed. Page Talbott (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 235–72; PBF, 31: 497, 35: 6. For an image of an early note, see PBF, 31: 497 (facing page).

[13] “Alphabetical List of Escaped Prisoners,” photostat, Franklin Papers, Yale University Library, New Haven, CT. Between 1780 and 1785, Franklin printed three different versions of the promissory notes. The first two facsimiles are of the first version of the note (notice the currency) and the third facsimile is of the final version. Besides for setting it in italics, the bearer is now instructed to direct their repayment to the “Superintendent of Finance” rather than the “President, for the time being, of the Congress.” Luther S. Livingston, Franklin and His Press at Passy: An Account of the Books, Pamphlets, and Leaflets Printed There, Including the Long-Lost Bagatelles (New York: Grolier Club, 1914), 80-83.

[14] BF to Robert R. Livingston, June 25, 1782PBF, 37: 535-9. In the same letter, Franklin goes on to report to Livingston developments with Digges malfeasance: “. . . and that very great Villain Digges defrauded them of between three & four hundred Pounds which he drew from me on their Account. He lately wrote me a Letter in which he pretended he was coming to settle with me and to convince me that I had been mistaken with regard to his Conduct; But he never appear’d, and I hear is gone to America. Beware of him, for he is very artful; and has cheated many. I hear every Day of new Rogueries committed by him in England.”

[15] Rufus King’s Notes to the Constitutional Convention, August 7, 1787. Also, see Madison’s own notes on the exchange. The Avalon Project. Yale Law School.

[16] Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin (New York: The Viking Press, 1938); Edmund S. Morgan, Benjamin Franklin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002); Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003); Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Penguin Press, 2004).

5 responses

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Due the enormous quantity of scholarship on Benjamin Franklin, it always surprising when someone finds something new about him. Michael D. Hattem at The Junto describes how Franklin assisted American sailors who were imprisoned in England during the Revolutionary War to escape captivity. As the Continental Congress’s Commissioner to France during the Revolutionary War, Franklin aided American who escaped English prisons by creating a underground railroad that provided financial and logistical support to them. Franklin was deeply moved by these mens attempts to return home. Franklin’s views on suffrage were influenced by his experiences with these imprisoned seaman. He was extraordinarily impressed by these men’s allegiance and fealty to their country. He believed that this justified expanding suffrage beyond freeholders. Hattem has helped illuminate a little known aspect of Franklin’s life.

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  5. Thank you for this fine article on Franklin and the American Prisoners held in Briton. One of these men was the son in law of the Joy Family of Rhode Island where I volunteer. Wm Burlingame and 70 others were taken on the Brig Washington in December 1775. Not much is known about the fate of most of these men. Burlingame did return after seven years. He is listed on the HM Fowey’s log of prisioners. I have been researching this for quite some time. Thanks again.


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